Over the past year, it’s occurred to me that I’m frequently asked for book recommendations. It’s also occurred to me that sometimes I give them unsolicited. In any case, as my final post for 2010, I wanted to leave you with some book suggestions. Please note, though: these are not books that were published in 2010 — in fact, only one of them is. They’re simply the five best books I’ve read this year in the order I read them (I’m not ranking them).
Peter Evans – Nemesis.
My year in good books begins with Peter Evans’ Nemesis. By now, we all know that the golden image of Camelot was rather tarnished. We all know that John F. Kennedy wasn’t the wholesome figure he was thought to be. I’m rather interested in the Kennedys, but this was the first book I’d read that focused more on Jackie than on Jack or Bobby. Specifically, it tells of her “retaliation” affairs — as it turns out, Jackie was also not who we thought she was. She too had affairs on the side, though perhaps not quite to the extent that her husband did (though JFK did have cause to believe that one of her [failed] pregnancies was not his doing). Nemesis examines her relationship with her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, from the time they met (while she was with JFK) through Ari’s death. It details the politics involved in her second marriage and why it might have been a big “F You” to the Kennedys, for it certainly wasn’t a happy one. Not long after she married Ari, the relationship was essentially over. In truth, the book is a little gossipy at times (dealing with scandals and hushed stories), but there are some interesting things at play — the politics, namely, and the long-standing feud between Ari Onassis and the brothers Kennedy. Evans tells how, in the wake of JFK’s death, Bobby did everything he could to keep Jackie away from Ari. Most of us have heard various accounts of Jackie’s relationship with RFK too: he was in love with her; they had an affair, etc. Though it would be difficult to prove concretely, one of Evans’ more compelling assertions is that Onassis financed Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. If you’re into history or conspiracy theories (or you like a little bit of scandal), I recommend this one.
Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking
Back in my first year of grad school, I took a literature course that had me reading and studying various nonfiction books. This is class really got me interested in the genre more than I’d previously been (you’ll notice this list is heavy on the nonfic). While there wasn’t enough time in the semester to read everything that’s considered “important” in literary nonfiction (which apparently begins with Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams), many suggestions were given. The one that I continued to hear, however, was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. This may very well be the best book I read all year. It’s spot on in its portrayal of emotions in the wake of tragedy. The year begins on December 30, 2003 when Didion and her husband, author John Dunne, return from the hospital where they had been visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was unconscious after developing septic shock while sick with pneumonia. They are getting ready to eat dinner when Dunne suffers cardiac arrest and dies, sitting in his chair. Didion makes the comment that one minute he was there and the next he was gone. She must then deal with her husband’s death as well as her daughter’s illness. Worse, she can’t even tell her daughter about Dunne’s death until she wakes up. The year that follows is one of magical thinking — the belief that anything is possible. She believes her husband could walk in at any time, even as she knows he won’t. What really spoke to me was the way she thinks about the milestones through the year. All things remind her that this time last year, she was with him. It begins with her first New Year’s without him. Then all holidays become milestones. The degree of sentimentality both calmed and unraveled me while reading it because I’m one of those people anyway. I’m always thinking about those milestones in terms of the past, even while looking just to get to the future and beyond them. It’s hard to explain in few words. I’m having trouble describing this book eloquently and in a way that would pique your interest. Suffice it to say that nothing I could possibly say could ever do it justice anyway. There is a reason that this book was deemed an instant classic in its genre. It’s also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It’s a well-regarded book in literary circles and a fast read because it’s so well-written and genuine. I devoured it in less than 24 hours. While reading it (and at the end) you will feel deflated and sad at best. If you’re like me, however, you’ll sob into your hand while shaking your head back and forth, wondering what it is you spend all your time complaining about. That might seem like a deterrent (who wants to read a downer book?) but don’t let it be. This book is so important and completely deserving of your time.
Wally Lamb – I Know This Much Is True
It’s not uncommon to hear me sing Wally Lamb’s praises. I’ve never read anything of his that I didn’t like. This book, like most of Lamb’s, looks a little intimidating at nearly a thousand pages, but the way he seems to weave historical and cultural milestones into his characters’ lives so seamlessly never ceases to amaze me. For that matter, neither does the way in which he manages to weave his characters together. This particular work focuses on Dominick Birdsey, a down-on-his-luck guy who, though he can’t seem to catch a break, manages to take care of his identical twin brother Thomas, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. The core of this book, at least in my opinion, is really about the complexities of family. No matter what you do, they’re always your family. As the story goes on, Dominick has translated, loses, and then gets back a document that his mother had given him before she died: his Italian immigrant grandfather’s life story. As he reads about Domenico Tempesta’s life, he comes to understand more about his own. He also puts pieces together to understand more about his family, including his real father’s identity — a question that has plagued him his whole life. Read this one for its portrayal of family dynamics, its introspection, and its craft. As a bonus, you’ll be able to experience world events with the characters that will have you saying, “I remember where I was when that happened.”
Jay Varner – Nothing Left to Burn
Though I didn’t know Jay Varner personally, we attended Susquehanna University at the same time. He was a couple of years ahead of me, but I knew who he was and I had this memory of reading something that he’d written about a guy he worked with at Wal-Mart dying in a car accident. I have no idea why that stuck with me, but it did, and when I heard his memoir was coming out, that memory made me feel pretty certain that I would enjoy his book. I wasn’t wrong. It gives me a little thrill to read about places and people I know (Susquehanna and a few professors come up, but the bulk of the novel takes place in McVeytown/Lewistown, which is not incredibly far from where I grew up, so I could visualize the area. Also, I felt a bit giddy reading the names of a few acquaintances and a former roommate who were acknowledged [in print!] at the end). The thrill didn’t end there, though. This is another book that examines the complexity of family dynamics, and in this case, fire is the tie that binds. Varner’s grandfather, Lucky, was a serial arsonist. Lucky’s son Denton (Jay’s father) became the town fire chief, completely committed to his work and a hero in the eyes of many, even if it meant lots of time away from his own family. The book examines these father/son dynamics and relationships that carry on beyond Denton’s death from cancer when Jay was still a kid. He writes of his memories of his father which are beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, especially when his father gets sick. Have your tissues ready. He grows up with Lucky still around, and when he graduates from Susquehanna and returns home, he becomes the next link in the fire chain: he gets hired at the local newspaper and assigned to the fire beat. His grandfather started fires, his father put them out, and Jay went to the scene in order to report about them. In the process of doing so, he learns more about his family as well, even if it isn’t always easy. I can imagine that it was probably very difficult for some people in his town (and family) to read this, but they should be proud of him. This book took guts and wouldn’t have worked in any other way. It is absolutely fantastic and I can’t wait to see what he publishes next.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I was a late bloomer as far as the Harry Potter series is concerned. I kept writing it off as fluffy kids’ stuff and it was too trendy for me to read. I started reading them in 2007, shortly after the 7th and final book came out, and was completely taken with how sophisticated the series actually is. I don’t believe that these are truly kids’ books, though I think kids can definitely appreciate them. I recently started re-reading the series, and this is the one I’m on right now (though I’m nearly finished, so I decided it was close enough to count for 2010). In the fourth installment, I was really struck by Rowling’s portrayal of teachers, namely Head Master of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, who is everything you could possibly want in an educator. It’s obvious in her writing that Rowling was a teacher, and being a teacher myself, I find myself drawn to these scenes. The fifth book blows me away, though. With the arrival of High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, Rowling shows tremendous foresight about education reform, which is a really hot button topic right now, and something to which I pay a good bit of attention. If the book was published in 2003, I’m nearly certain it was written well before that, meaning that it was pre-No Child Left Behind. I’m not sure that even matters since the author is British. I was reading about Umbridge coming into the classrooms to observe the teachers, making public displays of their observation results, and determining how and what the teachers needed to be teaching. This all went back to the Ministry of Magic — the government in the magic world. The parallels it draws to current education reform are astounding. Clearly a recommendation for this book is one for the whole series as much of it would make very little sense without having read the first four. That being said, if you’re a fan of the series and you’ve an interest in education, I suggest reading this one from that angle.
So there you have it. This is my final post of the year, my longest post of the year, and it contains the five best books I read in 2010. Nothing I say could do them justice, so you should really read them for yourself. Then be sure to let me know what you think :). Happy New Year, everyone!